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Freie Jüdische Umschau


A Freund in deed

Bella Freund made headlines in l992 for an unusual act.
Now the haredi woman is in the public eye again, this time in an effort to foster secular-religious dialogue.

Bella Freund is used to doing the unexpected. Five years ago, the haredi woman stopped an angry mob from attacking an Arab who had just stabbed two boys in Jerusalem's marketplace. She stood in front of him for 27 minutes while people kicked and punched her; one even burnt her with a cigarette. She did what "any normal human being should have done," she unabashedly told the press in the weeks that followed, taking an unusually public stand, particularly for a haredi woman.

Freund is back in the public eye. This time she has joined forces with her secular friend Ilana Ravid to found Shiluv ("integration, interweaving"), an organization whose purpose is to create a dialogue between secular and religious Jews. What makes this organization different from the dozens of others around Israel is that this one won't do anything.

Well, not anything that the other dialogue groups do. What Shiluv will do is serve as an umbrella organization for all the existing groups. "By working together, everyone will get more power. There are many movements. We want to work together to influence this nation," says Ravid who, a year ago, had intended to start an organization to promote dialogue between the two groups but found that there were already over 30 organizations with this purpose, some redundant, and most exhibiting influence only within their immediate surroundings. Unity and coordination for the the existing organizations, she decided, would be her contribution.

"Ever since I moved from Haifa to Jerusalem five years ago, I have felt the mounting tension between religious and non-religious Jews," says the 60-plus Ravid. "I thought, if I don't work to resolve this, who will?"

Six months ago Ravid enlisted the 45-year-old Freund to join her in this mission. Ravid first met Freund four years ago when the Society for a Better Israel (an organization which Ravid helped found) bestowed upon Freund an award for protecting the Arab assailant from the mob.

Over this last half year they worked to identify the different organizations (Dialogue, Common Denominator, Conversation, Paths, to name a few) and meet with some of their directors, who all agreed that there was a need for a "steering" organization, On July 7, Shiluv was born. And now they are ready to work.

Their first activity: a conference, to be held, at the end of September for all organizations and people who would like to improve relations between the religious and the non-religious. Shiluv, as an apolitical organization, will work to push this issue to the top of the national agenda, through public relations, advertising, information exchange, planning, and by letting the organizations "each work in their own particular way," says Ravid.

"We want to break through the barriers. We have to dismantle them," adds Freund.

How does one improve relations between two sectors of society that these days can barely stand on the same side of the street without a police blockade between them? "It's easy to hate a stranger. It's much harder to hate someone you are sitting face-to-face with," says Ravid. Freund agrees. "Look, if you take off the nose ring and the streimel, when you sit two people down, something good will come out of it."

Very nice ideals, but what happens when the groups come upon unresolvable issues?

"The army is a problem for me; I feel that half the nation is serving for another half," admits Ravid. "But still this is something that I think we can talk about."

Freund agrees. "The army is a difficult issue. I can understand how people feel about all the people who don't serve, religious and not religious."

Both happen to think that this is not their problem, but the government's to solve. They believe they can make their impact not so much through discussion, but by promoting joint activities for secular and religious people.. "Why do we have to talk about everything?"asks Freund. Next school year, she will be working with one of the organizations to distribute books to poor children. Freund believes that common causes l forge bonds. "I am haredi - let us all be hared [fearful] against traffic accidents, against battered women, against poor children. These are the things we can work together on."

The first step, though, is to open the lines of communication. "The minute you open a dialogue, you open up the process to accept one another as they are," Freund believes.

But is acceptance possible?

"I have many secular friends whom I respect and have learned a lot from," says Freund. "I want them to understand who I am and where I am from.

"I believe in God, not religion, but I respect someone else's right to keep the commandments," says Ravid. She is more wary. "But I don't want any religious coercion."

"I don't want to make anyone religious," Freund insists. "First of all, it is against Jewish law to coerce someone to be religious. Secondly, if they were religious, then I wouldn't be with them."

To understand how unlikely it is that these two women are allies, one must first know that they are from as different worlds as two Israeli Ashkenazi women can be: Freund's parents, survivors of Auschwitz, were hassidim. Freund is also married to a hassid, and they and their eight children are affiliated with the Agudat Israel party. She is an anomaly in a community that, although it values charity and peace, prefers to keep itself - and particularly its women - out of the public eye.

Freund recently took a public stand supporting the right of religious women to cover their hair with a wig. This came in response to a ruling by Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, prohibiting women from covering their hair with a wig alone. "If we can have the responsibility of raising eight children, I think we can make decisions on how to dress," she says.

Ravid, a "total secularist," was born in Israel to Polish parents - Maskilim "intellectuals" - who were so secular that they didn't even speak Yiddish in their house. It upsets her that many secular people feel they could more easily hold a dialogue with Arabs than with haredim.

Despite their different worlds, these women have much in common. They both come from Zionist homes (Freund's father served in the army). They are both aesthetic in their appearance (sharing the mirror to prep before pictures) and in their living space (Ravid's airy Rehavia penthouse is filled with her sculptures and plants, while Freund's silver Judaica adorns her spacious apartment in Makor Baruch). Professionally, they have both devoted their careers to helping others, Freund as a marriage counselor and social worker, and Ravid as a teacher and principal.

What makes them work well together is what motivates them: a combination of fear and love.

"We are going to lose this land that we worked so hard for because we will be weak," says Ravid.

"Jerusalem was destroyed not because people stopped respecting Shabbat," says Freund, "but because they didn't respect one another."

"We need to create brotherly love. For our grandchildren," Ravid insists.

"Not love," concedes Freund. "Acceptance. And not for our grandchildren. Nor our children. For us. For me and you."

AMY KLEIN / Jerusalem Post

1997 / 5758 - Freie Jüdische Umschau

content: 1996 - 1999